Missed Madison Film Festival

In a Valley of Violence | Ty West | USA | 2016 | 104 minutes

Four Star | Madison Public Library | Amazon Video | Google Play

Guest contributor Craig Johnson (Welcome to the Basement) regrets that Ti West’s venture into the western genre, In a Valley of Violence, closely resembles the plot of John Wick. Despite the film’s strong cast, including John Travolta and Ethan Hawke, he also laments the loss of the best actor in the first act.

Poor Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament).

A man avenges the murder of his dog by the son of a local boss. The man happens to be a reformed hired gun played by a middle-aged Generation X-er. The boss is cruel, but has the sense to know what battles to pick. The son, on the other hand, is a hot head whose decision to kill the dog is based on a small slight that has been blown out of proportion by his bratty sense of entitlement.

If this sounds familiar, that is because it is the plot to the 2014 Keanu Reeves film John Wick.

And as luck—bad luck—would have it, it is also the plot of Ti West’s 2016 western In a Valley of Violence, starring Ethan Hawke as the dog lover and John Travolta as the one legged marshal who runs this violent valley. A good couple of leads, but still one must feel bad for poor West. He didn’t know when he was writing and filming this pretty good little western that a huge cult classic with the same story was just a few months away from release.

Now we have these two parallel movies, and one can’t help but compare the two. To cut to the chase Wick is the superior. It’s more exciting, has a better visual style, and it seems to know what it is: a cartoon of vengeance. Valley has some great moments, is pretty enough to look at, but it can’t agree with itself about what movie it wants to be. I am all for darkly comic revenge thriller westerns with a modern sensibility if done correctly, but in this case the movie’s gears grind when shifting from mood to mood, so it’s often not clear if we are supposed to laugh or flinch.

Take for example a scene where Hawke’s Paul (maybe the most non-descript character name in the history of westerns) corners a henchman played with great sensitivity by Toby Huss. The henchman asks to be spared, admitting his shame in doing so but he’s got a daughter, while Paul (who has lost his daughter) decides to force his quarry into a devil’s bargain. It’s a scene filled with delicate emotions- both men are terrified and sad; one fueled by rage, the other deflated with regret. It’s a scene I’ve never seen in a movie before.

But, this powerhouse moment is thrown between a scene where two sisters squabble like the Real Housewives of New Mexico, and a comic scene in which another panicked henchman demands that Travolta’s Marshall stop calling him by his embarrassing nickname. Travolta’s hitting all the right exasperated notes reminds us that with the right material he a skilled comedian, but all this lack of consistency is jarring. It’s possible to have such contrasting scenes, but Ti West fails to pull it off here.

This is unfortunate for those like me who hoped that West would follow up his debut, the masterful, smoothly economic horror pastiche House of the Devil with a similar tone-perfect western, but Valley lumbers about like a gangly teenage boy, trying to be epic one moment, intimate in another.

This is not to say that this is a bad movie. And, to go back to my original comparison, it has all the things that John Wick lacks, primarily a sense of regret on the hero’s part. When Wick loses his dog—gifted to him by his dying wife—a switch is flipped and he immediately becomes his old killing machine self, as if the only reason he put down his guns was to get his late wife off his back. Violence’s Paul saw and did too much killing in the Indian Wars. He is attempting a peaceful life but still sees himself, and despises himself, as a killer. When push comes to guns you can see the grief and fear in his eyes alongside the anger.

Valley also works on a more realistic scale. This is not one man verses an army, but one man verses five, so it plays out like Gary Cooper’s High Noon, but in reverse, where the bad guys are waiting around a town waiting for the hero to show up to wipe them out. And although we are rooting for Paul to win the day, there are instances in which West allows us to feel the bad guy’s fear. Yes, they have most the advantages, but they know their adversary has them beat in experience and motivation.

Hawke is an unexpected choice to play the reformed killer who can’t help but kill, but he is very effective, taking a part one would normally find a mid-period Clint Eastwood playing, and injecting his performance with compassion and a certain degree of awkwardness. Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s much younger sister) is sufficiently rustic as Mary-Anne when she is playing opposite Hawke, but slips into that reality show inflection when going up against her sister Ellen (Karen Gillan). And John Travolta is plainly having a blast in his first western. Is he good? Is he bad? I don’t know, but he is fun to watch, so I won’t complain.

The best actor though doesn’t make it through Act I. I speak of the dog. I do not say this as a slight to the humans, but the dog beats all. In the final comparison between the two movies I will say that Violence’s dog is better than John Wick’s. I know this might be a controversial thing to say, but John Wick’s beagle pup played by Andy sucks in comparison to the remarkable Jumpy who plays Abby the dog. Jumpy is a real scene stealer who not only does well timed tricks, but she’s a great actress: you believe she has a legitimate lifelong bond with Paul. It’s sad to see her go. I hope she gets at least a Benji-level career.

This movie is close to being a good western, and I would love if West and his cast took another go at this whole thing. Do a wholesale remake with improvements like Raimi did with Evil Dead 1 and 2, or Hitchcock’s two Men Who Knew Too Much (Man Who Knew Too Muches?). This time, though, work on the tone, and kill Paul’s horse, not his dog. Then he and his Abby could exact revenge together. That would be a movie no one would confuse with any other.


Check out the other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews for Thursday, January 26:

Graduation reviewed by James Kreul at Madison Film Forum»

Klown Forever reviewed by Chris Lay (guest contributor) at Madison Film Forum»

Kate Plays Christine reviewed by David Klein at LakeFrontRow»